The truth about prioritisation

It’s a sad fact of life that, as mere mortals, we’re distressingly unable to control the passage of time. We can try all the tricks in the book, but the seconds just keep ticking by. Yet while we can’t control time, we do have complete control over how we spend it. The key is to choose carefully what we do and how we do it. The key is to prioritise.

The common perception is that prioritisation is about deciding the order in which we do things. But this doesn’t reduce the number of things we want to do. It simply juggles them around on our to-do lists and makes us feel like we’re winning, if only just a little bit.

The secret of prioritisation is that it’s not about deciding what we’ll do first. It’s about deciding what we’re not going to do at all.

To use our time effectively, we need to be able to decide not to do things. But it’s not necessarily because these things aren’t worthwhile. It’s simply because we have a limited amount of time in the day and we can only achieve so much. To pretend otherwise is a path to misery, stress and broken promises.

So how do we decide what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do?

There are various different ways to prioritise what you’re going to work on and what you’re going to leave by the wayside. My favourite, though, is a thing called the ‘Eisenhower Matrix’, which featured in Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Using this approach, we rate each task or activity according to two factors: importance and urgency.

Important things are things that we really need to do, either because they are essential to the achievement of our personal or professional goals or because they’re a key part of doing our job. Urgent things, on the other hand, are things that, for whatever reason, need to be done right now. (Spoiler alert: Urgent things are not necessarily important.)

This gives us the Eisenhower Matrix:

Eisenhower Matrix

This clearly isn’t rocket science. And when we’re prioritising which activities or tasks we need to crack on with first, I’m sure we’d probably all go for the ‘important and urgent’ things in the red box.

It’s what comes next that causes us a problem.

Because once we’ve done the ‘important and urgent’ things, we tend to move straight on to the ‘urgent but not important’ things in the yellow box. This despite the fact that we’ve already decided that they’re not important. (We know this because it says so right there on the box!)

And the ‘important but not urgent’ things remain neglected, languishing there on our to-do lists day after day. And we become more and more frustrated that we haven’t developed a new corporate strategy, reviewed our product portfolio, written that novel or whatever.

So here’s my suggestion:

  1. Use the Eisenhower Matrix to grade the tasks on your to-do list by importance and urgency.
  2. Manage the ‘important and urgent’ tasks and devote a significant proportion of your time to getting them done. (I do these tasks in the mornings, when I’m at my freshest.)
  3. Focus next on the ‘important but not urgent’ tasks and plan in an hour or two each day to work on them. (I work on these tasks for a couple of hours after lunch, when it’s relatively quiet.)
  4. Reduce the number of ‘urgent but not important’ tasks by delegating them, doing them as quickly as possible or deciding simply not to do them. (I leave any unavoidable tasks in this category to the last hour of the day, when my brain’s pretty much switched off, anyway.)
  5. Limit the number of ‘neither urgent nor important’ tasks that make it onto your to-do list in the first place. Or save them up and bash through them all on a rainy afternoon.

The key message here is simple: Focus on what is important. And don’t get stressed about stuff that isn’t, no matter how urgent it may claim to be. That’s the truth about prioritisation.

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